A few months ago a well-known pastor of an American Mega-church criticized small churches for not providing adequate programs for their youth. He called the leaders selfish for not sending their teenagers to a large church youth group so that those young people would be exposed to what in his thinking were more effective programs than the small church could offer.
There was a lot of reaction to his statements, including from his congregation, and he has subsequently apologized and withdrawn his comments.
My initial reaction to what he said was a mixture of disbelief and anger that anyone would say such a thing.
Since then I have done a lot of thinking about his comments. The purpose of this entry is not to criticize the pastor who preached this from his pulpit.. Lots of other people have done that far more effectively than I could.
I do feel, however, that the question that he raised is worth responding to.
Can a small church provide an effective program for their young people?
Facing the obvious
This will surprise you perhaps but the simple answer to that question is “No, They can’t.”
A small church will never provide as good a “program” as a large church. The small church doesn’t have the resources or the expertise that is needed to provide such a program.
Most large churches have at least one full-time staff member who heads the program up. They have lots of resources to purchase equipment and other things for their programs. They have larger numbers of volunteers and are able to bring in outside speakers and bands to entertain the youth who attend.
Small churches simply can’t compete with all of that.
Impact rather than success
So what do small churches do?
They aim for impact rather than success.
If you read this blog regularly you will have heard this contrast before but it is so vitally important for small churches to understand.
I owe a debt to Randy Pope and his book entitled INsourcing for this contrast.
Pope suggests that success is measured by the externals that we all can see – numbers, facilities, budget. Impact is measured by the things that we can’t see – the transformation that the Holy Spirit works in a Christian’s life.
Small churches will almost never achieve large measures of success. Therefore they have to aim at impact.
Glenn Damam in a blog entry entitled “The Contribution of the Small Church in Youth Ministry” emphasizes this:
“The true measure of the effectiveness of any ministry is not found in the number of people who attend but the individuals who are transformed. When we peal away the false perception that greater numbers always translate into more effectiveness and instead examine lives changed we discover that the small church can provide an environment for growth to occur”.
Small churches can have a huge impact on their young people whether there are five or fifty but only if they focus on the inner lives of the youth that God has entrusted to them and not fancy external programs.
A long-term investment in the future
I heard a speaker share that out of a youth group made up of twenty teenagers that he was part of in his teens nineteen went on to serve in some form of Christian ministry as adults.
That is amazing. Ninety-five percent of the youth in that group served in full-time ministry as adults.
I realize that that is exceptional. There may not be another youth group anywhere at any time that has had that broad an impact on its members.
The church that produced that group was a small church.
I don’t know what all they did to have that kind of impact. I’m thinking that they probably had some exceptional youth leaders.
I’m thinking that they probably had leaders who were more concerned about impacting the youth they had than they were about growing a large group.
I’m thinking that they probably invested a lot of time and effort into those teenagers as opposed to planning great programs.
I’m thinking that those kind of results probably were a one time thing, the result of some great leaders and some receptive teens.
I have to wonder if someone could look at the larger picture of the impact of that program, what one might see. With nineteen people involved in ministry over the course of their adult lives I would imagine that that church made a huge impact for the Kingdom.
If you are in a small church, you will probably never be able to run a successful youth program if you measure success by numbers or large programs. You can, however, have an impactful program if you measure it in transformed lives.
I began this entry by writing about the mega-church pastor who didn’t understand this fact. He could only see youth work in terms of numbers and as a result condemned parents for keeping their teenagers in small churches.
I wish I could take him around and introduce him to some of the people whom I’ve known. I would begin with my wife who grew up in small churches and has spent her life building God’s Kingdom.
I would introduce him to a friend who is the head of a mission organization that has impacted the cause of Christ all over the world.
I would introduce him to the pastor of a large urban church who looks back on his youth spent in a small-church setting as the foundation for his present ministry.
I would introduce him to a host of evangelical leaders across Canada who are shaping the church today but who spent their teen years in small churches.
So, when you look at the youth that God has entrusted to your church, don’t look at their numbers. Look at their potential and invest time, energy, prayer and resources into growing them into men and women who down the road will impact this country for Christ.
Can a small church provide an effective program for their young people?
Only if they focus more on impact than they do success.
I have to wonder if the mega church is actually at a disadvantage. It’s so much easier to focus on building a program and to see numbers as success. Aiming to see transformed lives is much harder but really the only goal worth reaching for!
Thank-you Ron. The question of how we include and engage children and youth in our “body-life,” especially in our gatherings, has been a huge question from the beginning. It has also been a point of great disappointment to families with children and youth, as we have been unable to meet expectations, especially in the area of programs. But I’m also aware that we also may be falling short of having the type of impact in their lives that leads to transformation. I do agree with you that the “impact” that you speak of IS POSSIBLE for small churches, but it still will require sacrifice — adults within the family still have to be willing to give generously of their time, energies, and resources to have the type of relationships with children and youth that shape their lives in the ways of the Kingdom. In many ways, it is much easier to send kids and youth off to a program than it is to create a place for them WITH you. In anycase Ron — your thoughts today encourage me to press forward in discovering how to promote, teach and model this approach!
You are absolutely right. It is much more difficult to invest in the lives of our young people in such a way that their lives are transformed. Creating a program, even the best program that one can imagine, is much easier to do. In the long run though the investment of time, concern and love that will change their lives has a far greater impact and impact always needs to be the goal.